Nation: The Ultimate Heist

The suspected thief finds that diamonds are not forever

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The 55-floor Security Pacific National Bank headquarters in Los Angeles looks like a granite-and-glass fortress. Dark-suited guards roam the lobby. Hidden cameras photograph customers as they make deposits and withdrawals. Yet last month, this stronghold was the site of a $10.2 million heist, the largest bank robbery in U.S. history. There were no guns, no masks, no getaway cars; indeed, the FBI reports that the Stanley Mark Rifkin thief never touched the money. The robber was so clever that the bank did not realize it had been robbed until told so by the FBI eight days afterward. Last week the FBI arrested the suspected thief: Stanley Mark Rifkin, 32, a balding and genial computer expert.

Rifkin operated his own computer consulting firm out of his three-bedroom, $400-a-month apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Twice married, Rifkin's chief interest was computers, with which he often played chess. One of his clients was a company that serviced Security Pacific's computers, so his was a familiar face around the bank's headquarters in Los Angeles. Then... but wait.

The tale of Stanley Rifkin and the incredible bank heist actually began in early October. According to the San Diego Union, he approached Lon Stein, a reputable diamond dealer in Los Angeles, and claimed to be representing a legitimate company named Coast Diamond Distributors. Rifkin wanted to buy millions of dollars worth of diamonds. Stein placed the order with Russalmaz, a firm founded by the Soviet Union in 1976 to sell its diamonds. On Oct. 14, Russalmaz's office in Geneva received a message from a man identified only as a Mr. Nelson of Security Pacific National Bank, confirming that Stein was a representative of Coast Diamond and that the company had the financial resources to consummate the deal. A few days later, Mr. Nelson phoned to say that Stein would arrive in Geneva on Oct. 26 to inspect the diamonds.

According to the FBI, that was only a day after Rifkin had dropped by the bank headquarters in Los Angeles and descended in an unmarked elevator to Operations Unit One on level D. There he talked his way into the wire transfer room, where he learned the secret code numbers—which are changed daily as a precaution—for transferring money between the bank and others, both in the U.S. and abroad. That done, he sauntered out.

Later in the day he phoned the wire transfer room and used the fictional name Mike Hansen, saying he was with the bank's international division. Rifkin rattled off several security codes. Next, he ordered $10.2 million transferred into an account at the Irving Trust Company of New York. Because Security Pacific makes about 1,500 transfers a day, totaling up to $4 billion, the order went through without a hitch.

On Oct. 26, as scheduled, a man who identified himself as Stein showed up at Russalmaz's Geneva office and spent the day selecting diamonds. The next day he returned with another man, who has not been identified and who did not resemble Rifkin, and agreed to pay Russalmaz $8.1 million for 43,200 carats of diamonds. The FBI believes that Rifkin either smuggled the diamonds into the U.S. himself or had them delivered by courier. In any event, he began peddling them.

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